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Could the Answer to Cleaning Up the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Lie in Geometry?

Virginia Tech College of Engineering researchers have received a $60,000 one-year National Science Foundation grant to study how naturally occurring microbes can best be used to eat away remaining crude oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Their choice of weapon: Geometry.

Fueled by oxygen, naturally occurring bacteria can slowly destroy blobs and slicks of crude oil without the use of additional chemicals. Faculty researchers at Virginia Tech's Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) hope to determine if the shape of crude oil remnant -- be it a flat syrupy sheet or a tar ball -- can affect deterioration rates. The researchers also will study how a lack of oxygen can hinder microbe growth, and how carbon leaching from dissipating oil can further fuel these oil-eating microbes, a two-step process known as mass transfer and biodegradation. Remaining toxic chemicals left behind by the spill also will be studied at Virginia Tech labs in Blacksburg.

"This research has the potential for improving our understanding of the long-term persistence of chemicals in the environment. In terms of clean up, there are many problems left to solve regarding the most toxic and recalcitrant pollutants that dissolve out of liquid sources, not just associated with oil spills, but at industrial sites, etc.," says Mark Widdowson, professor and assistant department head of CEE. He is spearheading the research with Amy Pruden-Bagchi, associate professor of CEE.

Widdowson and Pruden-Bagchi stipulate that oil remnants that have the geometric shape of flat surfaces will dissipate slower compared to tar balls that can be "surrounded" by microorganisms. "Each has a unique geometry where the rate of dissolution is controlled by exposed surface area," Widdowson and Pruden-Bagchi wrote in their grant proposal. "For oil layers, aerobic biodegradation on the underside of the deposit will be severely limited by oxygen availability."

More than 200 million gallons of oil is estimated to have spilled into the Gulf after the April 20 blowout at BP's Deepwater Horizon, an incident which also killed 11 people. More than 500 miles of shoreline is affected along the Gulf Coast, which "underscores the urgent need for research that will lead to accurate predictions of the long-term persistence of the crude oil in coastal environments," the researchers wrote in their proposal. Unknown is how the various chemicals used to more quickly disperse massive bodies of crude oil will affect future oxygen levels. If oxygen levels remain low in high-chemical-use areas, microbes likely will not grow fast.
 
 

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